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Sunday, 7 August 2011

HMS Discovery

HMS Discovery in Discovery Port, Dundee

Captain Scott cut his polar exploration teeth as the leader of the Discovery expedition (1901 – 4), which had a vast surveying and scientific programme. The HMS Discovery was built specially for this expedition and after decades of subsequent, various use as a cargo ship, a Royal Research Ship and a Scouts training ship, it has been conserved in Dundee as a museum piece (restored to its 1924 incarnation). I visited it yesterday.

The first thing that struck me was how small the ship is (52 metres long, 10 metres wide), and how much smaller it must have felt with a crew of 47, a dog and a cat on board. This compactness gave rise to idiosyncrasies in the design, e.g. coal had to pass through the ward room on the way to the bunker. Although it was the first survey ship of its kind to be built, it followed in a long line of wooden Arctic whalers to come out of Dundee. It wasn’t actually the first HMS Discovery, but the sixth, after Discoverys that had been led by celebrated explorers, including William Baffin, James Cook and George Vancouver.

An enfilade of 'ankle bashers' at deck level

Only two tenders were received once the naval architect William E. Smith had finished his draft, and the Dundee shipbuilders won outright, not least because they charged less. They used 10 kinds of timber, which were collectively thought to be stronger than iron and steel against the pressure of pack ice. The hull was made with three layers of planking totalling 65 cm in thickness, with extra shoring in the bow, and horizontal panting beams for reinforcement.

Every feature of the ship was designed with rolling, icy water in mind. Portholes would have compromised hull strength, so the ship was fitted with mushroom vents or ‘ankle bashers’, i.e. light wells, which were being polished at deck level when I visited: a crew of three keep it ship-shape today. The interior of the hull was fitted with small boxes filled with salt to preserve the wood from water damage. The stern overhangs the propeller and rudder much further than usual, to keep the helmsman dry in far southerly high seas and for shielding from ice damage. The propeller and rudder are retractable – a substantial innovation for the time.

The rigging

Although it’s a sailing ship, it was fitted with a triple expansion steam engine for when the wind failed, for ramming through pack ice and for emergency reversals. The steam was ingeniously circulated to keep the propeller grease from freezing. The engine cost a third as much as the rest of the ship combined and was coal-hungry.

It was interesting to try to imagine what ship life was like for Scott and his crew. On the one hand, Edwardian dining etiquette was observed to the letter, so officers ate off specially commissioned Royal Doulton porcelain ware. On the other, there were no fixed ‘cuddies’ (toilets) and no bathrooms, so crew washed themselves and their clothes in portable canvas or rubber baths wherever they could find space.

The chart room

Tellingly, no care or expense was spared on the heart of the ship, the laboratory and the magnetic observatory. Louis Bernacchi, the only member of the Discovery crew to have visited Antarctica before, engaged in studies of terrestrial magnetism from the centre of a magnetic exclusion zone thirty feet across – no iron or steel was used in the ship’s construction within this zone (brass was a common replacement), and even cutlery was cleared from this area when measurements were due to be made. A sobering reminder that even the best laid plans are susceptible to human error, Bernacchi humbly observed at the end of the Discovery mission that all along a parrot had observed his work from an iron cage in the laboratory!

Dr Wilson would complete his natural history paintings in this corner of the laboratory

I have to admit I visited the Discovery with low expectations, but was engrossed in the intricate and intimate displays. The museum vividly gives a sense of just how mysterious Antarctica was at the time, and how great the achievements of the early explorers were. One line which leapt out at me in the displays is that more was known about the moon in 1969 than was known about Antarctica in 1901 – the interior was a blank on the map. Have you been to the Discovery? Can you recommend anywhere else for me to visit?


  1. I would just like to say that I have visited the Discovery in Dundee and I found it most interesting and educational. I enjoyed reading your blog and seeing the photographs.

  2. if you like polar ships you should visit FRAM in Norway


About Me

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Ali is a 28 year old Londoner. He has trained at various things, including tennis playing, biochemistry and bespoke tailoring. He currently works in social housing for a local authority. In his free time, he marinades in Antarctic arcana, runs avidly (middle-distance) and bumbles through music practice. Ali volunteers for the International Scott Centenary Expedition 2012 charity, which aims to honour the legacy of Captain Robert Scott and his four men who died a hundred years ago. Ali is one of ten shortlisted candidates for the final place on the centenary expedition itself.